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NBA PM: Semi-Pro League Recruits Prep Stars

A semi-pro team is offering All-Americans millions of dollars to skip college. Will high school stars do it?

Alex Kennedy

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Semi-Pro Team Recruiting High School Stars

UPDATE: The AmeriLeague has signed four-star recruit Ted Kapita (according to Adam Zagoria) as well as former NBA players Henry Walker, Terrence Williams, Dajuan Wagner, Josh Selby, David Harrison, Antoine Wright, Royce White and Joe Crawford among others, according to league announcements. They are in talks with other former NBA and D-League players too. The league’s season will reportedly get underway on November 9.

Since the NBA’s age limit banned high school players from entering the draft back in 2006, prospects determined to take the prep-to-pro route have had to get creative.

Some players decided to sign a lucrative contract with an overseas team, like Brandon Jennings did in Italy and Emmanuel Mudiay did in China. Others, who didn’t want to leave the country, chose to sign with a D-League team and make less than $20,000, like Latavious Williams did back in 2009.

But what if a third option existed, one that allowed a top high school player to make millions of dollars without having to travel across the globe as a teenager? If a player could sign an enormous contract while remaining in the United States, would that option become popular among high school stars?

Cerruti Brown wants to find out.

Brown is a businessman who is the founder of the six-team, semi-pro AmeriLeague. The league was formed “to create another option for one-and-done high school talent” and, according to Brown, they have already started making large offers to prospective players. One team, named the Dealers, has been making pitches to some high schoolers.

Brown says that the Dealers are offering between $700,000 and $2.5 million for top high school stars, with the figure varying depending on the individual’s skill set and notability.

“To determine the salary, we look at a lot of things,” Brown told Basketball Insiders. “We’ll look at their overall talent. We look to see if the kid is already being projected as a consensus lottery pick on mock drafts. We also look at their marketability – the guys who have the personality to go along with the skill set. We want guys who will be attractive to corporate sponsors as well. We like those kids who have that swagger and ‘it’ factor, the players who are exciting and who kids look up to.

“There have been some reports – some accurate and some inaccurate – about what we’ll spend, but the most that has been put on the table so far is $2.5 million. We haven’t reached an agreement with that player yet, but neither side has ended the talks. But from our standpoint, that’s a huge chunk of change to spend on a player and they would have to be a sure-thing. But yeah, if they’re a projected lottery pick and a McDonald’s All-American and are notable, that number could end up being $2 million to $2.5 million at the end of the day. But, to be clear, it would have to be for the right player.”

If Brown’s idea takes off, this could present the best of both worlds for top high school players since they can earn a huge pay check in their one-and-done year without having to travel abroad. Ted Kapita, a four-star recruit, is the first player who has signed to play in the AmeriLeague.

“This was kind of a no-brainer,” Brown said. “We wanted to think of an option that could be better, as far as the pay, than going overseas or going to the D-League. I’m not going to toot my own horn or anything because I think it’s something that a lot of people have thought of, but just didn’t know how to get it off the ground. A lot of things have to fall into place to get it off the ground, but the idea itself was a no-brainer. This can be the best opportunity for one-and-done players.”

While adding Kapita gives the league some exposure, Brown admits that he’s mainly focused on the 2016 class of players. Because he was able to reach out to those players and their families much earlier in the process, he says a number of top prospects have expressed serious interest. Brown confidently states that his goal is to have multiple McDonald’s All-Americans suiting up for the Dealers next season.

“When we came out with the announcement, we were kind of behind the eight ball on the class of 2015 and I didn’t want to step on a lot of coaches’ toes since a lot of players had already committed and signed letters of intent,” Brown said. “But we were still able to get into the homes and meet with seven of the top 20 players in the class of 2015. Some were serious conversations, some were just meet and greets to feel out the situation and receive more information. Two conversations were very serious and now we’re down to crunch time. And, look, with something like this that is brand new, everyone wants to push the envelope and see if they can get more than the initial negotiated sum of money that was brought to the table. So we’re going to the wire [with the negotiations]. We signed Kapita, he was the first one.

“But with the 2016 class, we’re right in there with Kentucky and Duke and all of the top college programs as far as recruiting. We’ve been targeting that class and have been in constant communication with those prospects. We’ve been in homes and had serious talks. It’s going well so far. Really, [the negotiations] come down to the risks involved for all parties. They’re asking, ‘What if certain things happen, what if it folds?’ But on the flip side, as a businessman, I’m asking, ‘What if you don’t pan out? What if there’s a major injury? Will we lose money on this?’ The talks are going well and I think we can have multiple 2016 recruits next year.”

In addition to top high school players, Brown says the AmeriLeague wants to attract D-League players, overseas players and even fringe NBA players. So far, they have added former NBA players Terrence Williams, Dajuan Wagner, Josh Selby, David Harrison, Antoine Wright, Royce White and Joe Crawford to the league, and more announcements are expected very soon. This would provide quality competition for the high school talent the league attracts, while also growing the AmeriLeague brand. The fact that the AmeriLeague pays more than the D-League has enticed many players.

The salaries for D-League players are tiered, paying $13,000 to tier-one players, $19,000 to tier-two players and $25,500 to tier-three players. Of course, the players make more if they get called up by an NBA team, but there’s no guarantee that will happen. Brown says that the AmeriLeague will have a tiered payment system too – paying $26,000 to tier-one players, $34,000 to tier-two players and $44,000 to tier-three players – so even the lowest-paid AmeriLeague would be making more than the highest-paid D-Leaguer.

D-League salaries will likely be increasing in the near future due to the NBA’s new television rights deal, according to league sources, which could hurt AmeriLeague’s pitch. But it remains to be seen how much the D-League contracts will increase, and AmeriLeague could always respond with a subsequent pay bump of their own.

“When we first came out with this, everyone asked, ‘Well, who are you going to play?’ With the launch of AmeriLeague, we’re going to target D-League players and the overseas guys who want to stay in America,” Brown said. “We want to build a minor league that is on the highest level competition wise and skill-development wise.”

The league is being funded by an investment group that includes wealthy businessmen as well as several current and former NBA players, according to Brown. Also, Brown wanted to stress that the players will be covered by the Provenance Specialty Insurance Agency in the event of injury, removing some of the risk for the prospects.

While the money is certainly tempting, one of the most interesting aspects of this route for high school stars is the mentor program that they are creating. Brown will have former NBA players teach the young prospects about achieving success in the NBA and being professionals. Brown says the program will be led by nine-year NBA veteran Jerome “Junkyard Dog” Williams, who is the Las Vegas Chapter President of the National Basketball Retired Players Association. Other retired players (and some current ones) have committed to be involved as well, according to Brown.

In addition to players, Brown has lined up executives from Fortune 500 companies and financial planners to speak to the players about business, so they can prepare for life after basketball as well. Basically, instead of going to college courses for one year, the players in the AmeriLeague will be attending seminars that are applicable to their basketball career and post-playing opportunities.

“We want to prepare players for every step of their life,” Brown said. “We want them succeeding in the NBA. We want them succeeding after their playing career is over. We want them succeeding in their other endeavors. We want them succeeding as members of their community. The money is great and can definitely help them and their family, but we’re also providing the resources to thrive for the rest of your life. We aren’t making them sit in an Algebra 2 class. The players aren’t caring about that. We’re teaching them to succeed in the NBA, build their brand and manage their money. That’s the biggest thing that I want to get out there: Yes, we’re giving big contracts to young players, but we’re helping them too.”

Also, the AmeriLeague is expecting to hire a number of experienced D-League coaches and former NBA players to coach the six teams, giving the one-and-done players even more guidance from experienced pros. So far, the AmeriLeague has hired former NBA veteran Tree Rollins and former Washington Wizards skills and development coach Joe Connelly III (who is the brother of Denver Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly) as head coaches.

“We’re going to bring in some of the best young, up-and-coming coaches who are looking for their big break, as well as notable former NBA players to coach these six AmeriLeague teams,” Brown said. “We’re going after those kinds of coaches who can garner respect from prospects and really help these players develop.”

Brown has talked to NBA executives about the AmeriLeague’s model and he says they love the idea, particularly since players should be more mature and prepared for the NBA from being mentored by the retired athletes. Another benefit of the one-and-done players suiting up in this semi-pro league is that all of the involved parties won’t have to follow the strict NCAA rules. Players’ on-court time won’t be limited, they can focus all of their time on basketball and executives can scout them as much as they want. Of course, NBA officials would still have to limit their contact to some extent due to NBA rules, but the NCAA rules wouldn’t apply to the AmeriLeague teams. Also, Brown is planning for all six AmeriLeague teams to be based in Las Vegas, making it easy for scouts and executives to see all of the notable players in one trip.

“To be honest, the NBA executives and coaches and agents I’ve talked to love the concept because they feel this is needed,” Brown said. “As long as this is run right, the NBA is going to benefit because we’re going to prepare the kids and make sure they’re mature enough to succeed in the NBA.”

This season, the AmeriLeague season will tip off on November 9. Starting in 2016, the league planning to start their season sooner (likely on August 1) since that’s when there’s not much basketball content available and passionate fans are craving a hoops fix. Brown says that the 2016 season would run from August through December.

In addition to filling a void in the basketball schedule, this would also give players a chance to sign a second contract and make more money once the AmeriLeague season concludes. The one-and-done players could join an overseas team if they choose, while the veteran players could potentially join an NBA or D-League roster.

“The things we have going for us is the mentor program, the increased salaries, the tiered payment system and our league will last just a few months so players can go sign elsewhere and make even more money after playing with us,” Brown said. “We aren’t holding anyone hostage; we want them to maximize their earnings.”

As Brown has tried to launch this idea, he has gotten some push-back from people who are benefiting from the current one-and-done model. He knows those people will try to stop the AmeriLeague from launching and succeeding, but he’s not giving up.

“The majority of people who don’t want this to happen are the people who have their hands in the cookie jar making money off the high school players and the [current model],” Brown said. “They don’t want the top prospects joining us, and I understand that. Those people will be the first in line doubting us and saying it’s never going to happen, but I know that we can do this. When you’re talking about the money that we have to offer, anyone with common sense is going to hear this pitch. We know it’s not for everybody, but we believe we can find some players and families who believes this makes a lot of sense and they’ll act on it.

“Also, I know people don’t like change, but everyone complains about the shadiness of recruiting and the money changing hands under the table. Well, we’ve got nothing to hide! We’re putting the money on top of the table and saying, ‘Take it or leave it.’”

In terms of exposure for the players, Brown has reached a deal with Mandalay Sports Media to create a film about the Dealers’ journey, which will be aired on VICE Sports. Also, Brown says that he has also been in talks with VICE Sports about potentially broadcasting AmeriLeague games, so fans could watch these top prospects in action. The goal eventually is to have these games nationally televised on a station like ESPN or Fox Sports, much like “The Basketball Tournament” just did with their unique idea.

After talking to Brown and hearing all of the details of the AmeriLeague, I reached out to several former high school stars who went on to play professional basketball to ask: Would you have taken $1 million to play for a semi-pro team straight out of high school had this option been available to you?

Five players said yes, three players said no and one said maybe. Below are some of the responses from players, who spoke under the condition of anonymity.

“Hell yes, I would’ve taken that!” said a five-star recruit who was one of the most highly coveted recruits in his class. “Hell yeah! No question.”

“I wouldn’t have taken it,” added a former McDonald’s All-American. “I wanted to experience college. One million dollars is nothing when you have guys like Draymond Green getting $80 million or more after going to school for four years. The risk is not worth the reward. Also, when you skip school like that, for some reason those guys get a negative reputation; for example, Brandon Jennings, Jeremy Tyler and Emmanuel Mudiay. I wouldn’t have taken it.”

“I would have accepted the deal,” added another former McDonald’s All-American. “I would’ve wanted to talk to my family and advisers and see what they thought. But if they agreed, I would’ve done it. It would be really hard not to take it.”

“Wow. I mean, I think I would have taken it, to be honest,” added another former McDonald’s All-American. “I’m sure a lot of guys will take that offer.”

“Nah, I wouldn’t have taken it because I grew up dreaming of playing college ball,” said another former McDonald’s All-American. “That’s the only reason why I wouldn’t do it. It’s a good idea though.”

With the significantly larger salaries, a mentor program designed to prepare players for the NBA and the ability to attract and showcase some of the game’s top young players, Brown’s AmeriLeague could be a game-changer in the basketball world.

“I believe this can be the top minor league for basketball,” Brown said. “This could be big.”

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Results-Based Mental Performance: Plan B

Jake Rauchbach breaks down how players can improve their on-court games with off-court tools during this hiatus

Jake Rauchbach

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For players looking to remain sharp, getting in on-court work right now can prove to be a challenge. Considering the social distancing and lockdown currently in effect, players and teams alike may be forced to look outside the box to employ other sorts of ways to maintain an edge.

Integrated player development tools that touch upon the deeper level of the mind could provide the answer.

With limited skill development time, mental tools that aim to maintain and refine player’s instincts, habits and routines could hold the key to producing improvement during this on-court hiatus.

In this column, we are going to highlight four different ways to train the mind (And Game) to remain sharp.

Visualization

Science has shown that there is a direct connection between thoughts, emotions and the body. This means when players are relegated to primarily off-court activities, there could be no better way to train, than visualization.

Players that I have worked with in the past who have employed visualization, have often produced mirror-like on-court results.

For instance, during my time at Temple University, there was a player who pictured himself stealing the ball in the full court and then going down to dunk the ball. Before visualizing this, he had not completed this play during the game. After doing so, he began to repeatedly complete this play during the games. This is just one example, of how powerful visualization can be, and there are many more. This type of phenomenon has become the new normal for the community of MindRight Pro community players. What we are finding, is there is a direct connection between internal picturing and external outcomes.

This is one of the reasons why, visualization is such a beneficial tool to use, especially when players are not able to get-in adequate court-time. At this point, making this apart of the player’s daily routine should be a no brainer.

Affirmations

Affirmations have long been used as a way to affirm mindset. For players, whose seasons have abruptly come to an end, and where on-court time has been limited, training mindset to stay sharp is VITAL.

Consistent use of affirmations helps players hone their very own personal mission statement. If players can stay on a mission now, they can perceivably do so through any future experience.

Regular check-ins help to keep players on a mission, and headed in the right direction.

Breath Work

Leveraging breath as a way to increase awareness and performance is a pillar of virtually every type of self-help and high-performance modality.

Being aware of one’s breath is very powerful. Breathwork has also long been used as a vehicle to bring people into the present moment. The present moment is where high-performance lives. For players, there may be nothing more important for their game than this.

This is a big-time opportunity for athletes to train on-court performance via present moment awareness. We are talking about training breath as a proxy for improvement.

Ultimately, on-court performance all boils down to present moment awareness. Without a strong handle on this aspect of consciousness, players will hold themselves back from the best version of themselves. For players, training this aspect now could reap big-time rewards when basketball resumes.

Meditation

Of course, we can provide this list without talking about meditation. Meditation is like the anchor for all other mind-based methods. With the increasing number of options for meditation, players should have no problem finding resources in this regard.

This being said, there are a ton of different types of meditation. It does not matter which one a player chooses, the most important thing is that he/she is consistent.

Consistency moves the dial, and that is super important right now. Players who consistently train the mind during their time off the court; Give themselves an edge once they’re cleared to be back on the court in the full.

Check out Jake Rauchbach’s High-Performance Mindfulness podcast here.

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NBA Daily: The Hot Seat – Western Conference

Matt John takes a look at head coaches and general managers in the Western Conference whose jobs might be on the line.

Matt John

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Back on Monday, Basketball Insiders took a look at which personnel from the Eastern Conference could be in danger of losing their jobs. In case you missed it, check it out here.

Previously, we discussed the notion that there’s always one guy you’d never suspect to lose his job to get hit by the Hot Seat – Kenny Atkinson’s mutual parting a few weeks back was just that.

Before we dive into the jobs on the line in the Western Conference, there’s something else that must be pointed out about the Hot Seat. It’s true that when it comes to job performance in the NBA, most of what determines your fate stems from the question: “What have you done for me lately?”

Joe Dumars’ time as the general manager of the Detroit Pistons is a good example of this. Outside of infamously drafting Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony in 2003, Dumars had a near-perfect track record after taking over from 2000 to 2006. Following the departure of franchise icon Grant Hill, Dumars did the following:

– Acquire Ben Wallace in a sign-and-trade with Orlando for Hill. Wallace then went on to become one of the best rim protectors of his era and all-time
– Brought in Chauncey Billups on a cheap deal just before Billups became Mr. Big Shot
– Traded Jerry Stackhouse for Richard Hamilton, who became a perfect complement next to Billups in the frontcourt
– Drafted Mehmet Okur, Tayshaun Prince, Amir Johnson and Jason Maxiell, all productive players that were taken after the lottery
– Replaced Rick Carlisle with Larry Brown
– Basically stole Rasheed Wallace mid-season

Naturally, this created a great era of basketball for Detroit. They won a championship, went to two consecutive finals, and went to six consecutive conference finals from 2003-08. Not many can say they were able to win a championship after losing a superstar and failing to draft one when they had the chance, but Dumars can.

But then came the fall of 2008: That bred the awful Billups-for-Iverson deal. Paying top dollar for the ill-fated Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva contracts. Putting together a frontcourt of Josh Smith, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. If Dumars didn’t have an incredible run earlier as general manager, how long would he have lasted after putting the team in mediocrity?

Given the massive amount of franchise success to his name, he kept his job long after things nosedived for Detroit. It’s that same sort of success that guarantees leaders like Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle will keep their job for as long as they want, even if they are sitting at home when the playoffs start.

The following people are on the hot seat not because they haven’t necessarily experienced success with their team — but because they haven’t had enough to keep their job should they fail in the situation they find themselves in now.

“Figure It Out… And Quickly Now”

Mike D’Antoni — Houston Rockets

D’Antoni has a lot of success both with the Rockets and as an NBA head coach in general. So much so that if he retired right here and now, he’d make a case for the best coach to never win a championship. Even so, the pressure on him to get Houston over the hump is stronger than it’s ever been.

Obviously, going to the small-ball lineup is something D’Antoni has no issue deploying. In fact, he embraces that gameplan. But even this may be too tall of a task for him. In the past, he used perimeter guys to soak up minutes at the power forward and center spots, but he usually had at least one pure big in his rotation. Now he doesn’t.

With Robert Covington and Clint Capela out, the Rockets don’t have any rotation players taller than 6-foot-8. In fact, the only one who’s actually measured at that height is Jeff Green, who was not only cut from Utah mid-season but spent most of the year riding the pine before Houston inquired about his services. Can you really call it small-ball if you have no bigs to begin with?

D’Antoni wouldn’t be here if this experiment was definitively working — they’re in the mix, but certainly not full-on contenders at this moment. For a while there, it looked like it was. Houston won seven of its first eight games, coming with notable wins coming against the Lakers, Boston (twice) and Utah. They then followed it up with a four-game losing streak with losses at the hands of New York, Charlotte and Orlando.

A record of 8-5 honestly isn’t too bad with such a drastic mid-season change, in retrospect. Russell Westbrook was playing some of the best basketball of his career, while James Harden was a little more off than usual. Still, the mixed results were scary given what the Rockets have ahead of them if the playoffs eventually come.

If Houston doesn’t get to the championship round or, at the very least, go further than they did last season, D’Antoni might get the lion’s share of the blame. Either way, D’Antoni’s contract extension talks with owner Tilman Fertitta didn’t go… smoothly either. As bad as that all may sound, with his reputation, he wouldn’t have much trouble finding another job.

“We Cannot Lose Another Franchise Player… We Just Can’t”

Ryan Saunders/Scott Layden – Minnesota Timberwolves

First, some props are due for both Saunders and Layden. In Layden’s case, he should get the credit for stealing Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez away from the Denver Nuggets. Then as a follow-up, he acquired D’Angelo Russell to appease Karl-Anthony Towns and give him the best scoring guard he’s ever had.

For Saunders, he’s integrated them pretty well mid-season. Beasley and Hernangomez are both playing excellent basketball right now for the Timberwolves. Russell is doing his usual thing. Appearances, finally, are on the rise for the talented squad.

Has that changed Minnesota’s fortunes one bit? Nope! Since the Timberwolves made their mid-season roster shakeup, they’ve gone 3-10, which puts them at 19-45, good for second-worst and only ahead of the injury-decimated Golden State Warriors.

It’s numbers like those that make the Wolves’ promising start back in October feel like an eternity ago. It wouldn’t matter if the season resumed or not, the Timberwolves weren’t making the playoffs. Worse, Towns was not happy with the team’s lack of success for most of the season. What Minnesota has to ask themselves is how long will he be willing to put up with such a lack of progress.

Bringing Russell aboard was the smart, obvious, and let’s face it, inevitable move. Pairing your franchise player with his friend has brought his spirits up, but the continued losing might not indefinitely postpone these feelings forever.

The real pressure on Layden and Saunders doesn’t come from only how the Timberwolves do, but how they fare against their competition next year. Excluding the conference’s top seven, their younger competitors — New Orleans, Memphis, Sacramento, Phoenix — are further along in developing their team than Minnesota. Worse, Golden State and Portland are also going to be much healthier next season. Making the playoffs in the Western Conference is going to be quite the mountain to climb, especially for Minnesota.

If they can’t get over that hump, Minnesota will have to do something to keep Towns happy. That might start with getting rid of Layden and Saunders.

This list may be short, but that’s because it’s hard to see other coaches and general managers being put on the hot seat right now. Ether because their seasons have gone well, their seasons have gone badly for reasons that were out of control, or there’s too much loyalty there for anyone to get fired.

The one coach who might eventually be on the hot seat is Quin Snyder. He’s done an excellent job for Utah over these past several years, so his one hiccup shouldn’t be enough to put his job in jeopardy. That’s more of a wait-and-see situation. Even if it doesn’t get better, it took several years for Toronto to dismiss Dwane Casey because he did so much for that organization.

Oklahoma City’s season has gone so surprisingly and enjoyably well that Billy Donovan’s job should be just fine. Some will blame Neil Olshey for what happened to Portland this season, but with all that happened with Jusuf Nurkic and their other injuries, what were his options?

Alvin Gentry would have made this list, but it wasn’t his fault that Zion Williamson missed most of the season. Now that the generational prospect is back, New Orleans has most definitely turned a corner and went 11-8 since his debut. It might be too late both due to the injury bug and COVID-19, but their improvement over the last few months should make Gentry’s job safe for now.

Luke Walton or Vlade Divac would also be prime candidates for this list, but who knows what’s going on in Sacramento’s collective head?

Right now, it looks like a lot more jobs in the Western Conference are safe than not at the moment. That can all change in a short amount of time, but we don’t know anything, really. Here’s to hoping that no one will lose their job in this league – especially at a time like this.

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NBA Daily: Under The Radar – Western Conference

David Yapkowitz takes a look at players from the Western Conference that deserve their due for stepping up this season despite receiving less attention.

David Yapkowitz

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NBA basketball is on an indefinite hiatus for the foreseeable future, but here at Basketball Insiders, we’ve still got some content to keep you entertained.

We kicked off last week with a look at some of the top upcoming free agents around the league, started this week with coaches and executives who could be on the hot seat, and we’re transitioning into looking at players who may have been flying under the radar this season.

There are various reasons why a player could be flying under the radar. Playing in a small market, not being on a playoff team, etc. Whatever the reason may be, here’s a look at some of the players in the Western Conference who have been under the radar this season.

Chris Paul – Oklahoma City Thunder

With all the attention Chris Paul has gotten throughout his career, it’s funny to think of him being on an under the radar list. But he really hasn’t gotten his proper due for this season he’s putting together. At the start of the season, the Thunder looked like a fringe playoff team at the absolute best. Thanks to Paul’s leadership, they were in contention for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and surely would have given anyone a tough opening series.

In his 15th season, Paul’s numbers are right around his career averages. He was putting up 17.7 points per game, 4.9 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 1.6 steals. His 48.9 percent shooting from the field is the third-highest mark in his career. As of publishing, the Thunder were actually ahead of the Houston Rockets in the standings; the team that traded Paul last summer.

Torrey Craig – Denver Nuggets

Craig is in third NBA season, all with the Nuggets. He went to a small NCAA Division 1 school (University of South Carolina Upstate) and spent the early portion of his career overseas in Australia and New Zealand. He originally began his NBA career on a two-way contract, earning a standard contract after his first year and now becoming a mainstay in the Nuggets rotation.

His numbers have gone up every year he’s been in the NBA. This season he was shooting career-bests 46.2 percent from the field and 33 percent from the three-point line. What has really stood out about him, however, is his defensive ability. He’s quietly become one of the better perimeter defenders in the league. On a team full of offensive firepower like the Nuggets, his skill-set is a much-needed asset.

Ben McLemore – Houston Rockets

There was a time when McLemore was a lottery pick and supposed to be one of the future building blocks for the Sacramento Kings. That didn’t end up panning out and when he joined the Rockets on a non-guaranteed contract this past offseason, it was widely seen as his last shot to prove himself as an NBA rotation player.

He has certainly answered the call this season. He emerged as an invaluable member of the Rockets rotation. He established himself as a legitimate 3&D player. Early in the season when his shot wasn’t falling, he was still contributing on the defensive end. As of now, he’s shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 39.5 percent from three-point range. He’s been a starter for Houston and he’s come off the bench. He’s certainly done enough to earn himself another contract in the offseason.

De’Anthony Melton – Memphis Grizzlies

Melton played in a total of 50 games last season as a rookie for the Phoenix Suns. This season, he was on pace to surpass that. In his second year in the league, he’s become a key piece for a Grizzlies team that was hanging on to the eighth spot in the West. He has a versatile skill set and he can play multiple positions.

Melton was putting up 8.1 points per game, 3.7 rebounds, and 3.0 assists. He’s a legit combo guard. He’s comfortable with the ball in his hands and running the offense. He is also a strong defensive player. There is a lot of young talent on the Grizzlies and Melton is perhaps the most underrated one.

Landry Shamet – Los Angeles Clippers

Shamet had an immediate impact as a rookie last season, especially in the Clippers entertaining first-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors. Last season, he started 23 of the 25 games with the Clippers after the trade with the Philadelphia 76ers. He began this season as a starter, but has since transitioned into a bench role.

His numbers and minutes have dropped off since the arrival of Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson, but he still is a valuable part of the team. He’s averaging 9.7 points per game and shooting 39.2 percent from the three-point line. He can play both on and off-ball. He is especially adept at moving without the ball to get open.

Georges Niang – Utah Jazz

Niang started his time with the Utah Jazz on a two-way contract and has gradually worked his way into the Jazz rotation. When Utah waived Jeff Green back in December, Niang was the beneficiary of increased playing time. He has fit in well as a small-ball four-man who can space the floor.

He’s shooting a career-best 41.6 percent from the three-point line and earlier this year was among the top three-point shooters percentage-wise in the league. He comes into the game, plays his role and doesn’t try to do too much. A key utility guy who does what is asked of him and can contribute to winning.

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